Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Manal Al-Sharif's Statement to the Media

I would first and foremost like to express my profound gratitude to our leaders, in particular the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, for ordering my release from detention, a gesture that does not come as a surprise knowing the King’s benevolence toward his sons and daughters of this honorable country.

Concerning the topic of women’s driving, I will leave it up to our Leader in whose discretion I entirely trust, to weigh the pros and cons and reach a decision that will take into consideration the best interests of the People, while also being pleasing to Allah, and in line with Divine Law.

On this happy occasion, I would also like to affirm that never in my life had I been anything beside a Muslim, Saudi woman who aspires to remain in God’s good graces and to safeguard the reputation of our beloved country. And I will continue to uphold these values and principles until the day I meet my Creator.

Thanks to Allah, His compassion, then King Abdullah’s big heart, has helped me to persevere through my short ordeal.

That said, I was stunned to learn of the accusations hurled at my religious and moral beliefs especially that they originated from people I least expected to go down that route. I held my breath for those speaking in the name of religion and others-May Allah guide them rightly-to do me some justice, and that if I had done wrong to blame me only accordingly and fairly, without defaming my faith, creed, and moral system. For at the end of the day I’m everyone’s sister and daughter. How could they wound their sister and daughter with such charges? From the bottom of my heart I beseech Allah to shower them with his forgiveness for the serious harm they’ve caused me.

Furthermore, I must point out I do not authorize any individual to speak on my behalf or put words in my mouth, whatever their personal agenda.

Finally, I pray for the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. He is Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.

Translated by Zaki Safar via Archetype in Action

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Some Saudis Promote Violence against Women over Driving Ban Debate

Often when Saudi women speak of being denied their basic rights guaranteed in Islam or the freedom to choose whether to drive a car, the inevitable backlash occurs in the form of a smear campaign, or worse, threats of violence.

There are more Saudi men than people would expect that support the freedoms sought by women. There are also many men who feel threatened just by discussing these freedoms. They wage campaigns against outspoken Saudi women who apparently don’t know their place in society. The anonymity of the Internet has encouraged some pretty offensive behavior.

I can speak from personal experience, and I know of many Saudi women journalists who have had their morality called into question for speaking about what should be an intelligent discussion about the female driving ban. The comments sections on news website are rife with accusations of immoral behavior, lack of patriotism, lewd remarks on women’s physical characteristics, speculation about their sex lives and why the men in their families can’t “control” them.

There is something eerily consistent about the language and tone of comments, both in Arabic and English, that raises the question of whether such reactions are an organized effort to further marginalize Saudi women. I have noticed on different news websites obscene comments repeated word for word on articles written by Saudi women journalists reporting or offering an opinion on social issues.

Now a Facebook campaign has surfaced encouraging men to beat their wives and daughters with an iqal – the black wire rope that keeps the ghutra in place – if they presume to get behind the wheel and drive a car. It seems that the whisper campaign to demean Saudi women is failing, and this band of thugs has resorted to advocating violence.

These same gangsters feel emboldened by some sheikhs who not only advocate violence against disobedient women, but also want these women killed. This kind of violent language contradicts King Abdullah’s position that hate rhetoric has no place in Saudi society.

The controversy over the jailing of Manal Al-Sharif is such an insult to Saudi women that few will be cowed into submission. We have reached a point of no return. So, does this mean that violence is a likely result if we fail to submit to our male masters on the issue of women’s rights?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Saudi Women's Driving Ban Rises to Become a Major Issue

A version of this post appeared in the Huffington Post.

There was a time when I firmly believed the endless debate about Saudi women banned from driving cars was trivial. It distracted Saudis from the real problems of the denial of women’s rights: employment, education, guardianship abuses, inheritance, and fair and equitable treatment in the Saudi judicial system.

The arrest and imprisonment of Manal Al-Sherif, 32, after driving a car in Khobar, has changed all that. The driving ban is no longer a distraction to Saudi women’s quest for their rights, but could very well be the centerpiece of our struggle to obtain rights long denied us.

My change of heart comes from the fact that it’s obvious that well into the 21st century, Saudis are unable and apparently unwilling to solve minor issues like a woman’s right to drive an automobile. So what makes me think that we can solve the weightier problems of guardianship and justice in the courts?

Well, we can’t. The path Saudi Arabia is taking towards judicial reform and granting women better employment opportunities is questionable. It’s a questionable because Manal broke no laws, yet she was arrested in the dead of night on a vague allegation of “violating the public order.” She is accused of “violating the rules and the system by driving her car, roaming the streets of the province" and "inciting public opinion" by posting a video of her driving on YouTube.

Clearly it’s the Khobar municipal police and the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue that have violated the public order. Manal was performing basic tasks as a woman in charge of her household. If that means driving a car to perform those tasks, so be it. By arresting Manal for exercising her rights to perform these chores, the police and commission violated the public order. The public order was further violated because the arrest caused anger among Saudi women who empathize with Manal’s attempts shed light on her plight to get around town to take care of her family.

The facts as we know them are that Manal, who possesses an international driver’s license as required by Saudi authorities, drove her car. She was wearing a seatbelt, obeyed all traffic laws, wore the hijab and had her brother in the car with her. There is nothing in the Saudi traffic codes about women not permitted to drive. There is nothing un-Islamic about her behavior. Sheikh Ahmed bin Baz, and long before him, Sheikh Al Al-Bani, said there is no Islamic reason to deny women the right to drive.

By arresting Manal Al-Sherif, Saudi authorities elevated the once trivial debate on women driving to a major issue. King Abdullah in an interview with Barbara Walters, and virtually every Saudi minister from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, unequivocally said that women driving is a societal issue. King Abdullah said that only Saudi society could determine the appropriate time when women can drive cars. He said he believed that time was soon.

I gather in this case Saudi society comprises of the religious conservatives who continue to object to this simple right, although there is no religious foundation to prevent women from driving. Manal’s brother, the woman who sat in the passenger seat of Manal’s car and Manal’s family apparently do not qualify as members of Saudi society. Nor does the woman arrested with her two female relatives the other day for driving in the rural province of Al-Ras. And perhaps the Al-Ras arrests are even more troubling than Manal’s detention.

For decades, Saudi women living in rural areas have driven cars and trucks to keep food on the table, take children to school and to make sure the family business runs smoothly. It strikes me as odd that the Saudi government gives rural women a free pass, but denies Manal a trip to a Khobar supermarket to put food on her table.

Saudis, however, have no one to blame but themselves. And I wonder whether they even understand the significance of Manal’s case. A Saudi male colleague wrote to me the other day that his father’s “neighbor refuses every single young man who comes asking for the hand of one of his three daughters in marriage … They should go to court and complain against him but they did not. Isn't (marriage) a more important issue than driving? Why do you, women, insist on driving and forget your other more basic rights?”

Clearly, the right to marry whom one pleases is more important than driving. Yet we have no hope of solving this more significant problem if we can’t even agree on the less important ones.

Frankly, I’m ashamed of what happened to Manal. Saudis hold themselves up to ridicule from the global community. Saudi Arabia singed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as long as it doesn’t conflict with Sharia. Women driving cars does not conflict with Sharia. In addition, Saudi Arabia has earned a seat on the United Nations’ new women’s rights agency, UN Women. It was my hope that the CEDAW ratification and the membership to UN Women would bring Saudi Arabia into the global community’s embrace of universal women’s rights.

It appears we are not even close to that goal.